This past quarter, The CS+Social Good team taught a class in Stanford’s Computer Science Department. The class, called CS 90SI, was a unique educational experiment where students learnt web development while working on real world high impact projects. Students worked on tackling problems like lack of political accountability with Government of Delhi, incentivizing online education with Oppia Foundation, low cost medicine redistribution with SIRUM and labor rights with LaborVoices.
Personally, leading and teaching this class has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had at Stanford yet. The projects the 20 students in the class worked on will reach 25 million people by the end of this year. Let’s take a look at all the projects that came out of the class:
Team Delhi — Political Accountability
Delhi is the center of the world’s largest democracy and home to 20 million people. It’s a city of government officials, corporate executives, lawyers, traders, teachers and students. It is also home to millions of laborers, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and street vendors.
Students worked with the Government of Delhi and the ruling political party, Aam Aadmi Party (“Aam Aadmi” means common man) to create the next generation of tools to ensure political accountability in the country.
Manifesto Tracker — Holding the government accountable
During any election, local or state, a political party in India publishes a series of promises to the electorate, called a Manifesto. These manifestos are printed on newspaper, published online and discussed on TV. Unfortunately, historically these manifestos have been a case of “one document to please everybody”. There is usually very little follow-up or delivery upon attainment of power.
With a database of all the electoral promises provided by the Government of Delhi, the students built a crowdsourcing platform for all 20 million citizens in New Delhi to track the government’s work. The manifesto tracker will be used to inform the citizens of work in progress and get feedback on each promise and project.
Question Hour Form — Connecting citizens & government
Lok Sabha, or the lower house of the Indian parliament, has 543 representatives from all across the country. The first hour of a sitting session of India’s Lok Sabha is devoted to questions that Members of Parliament raise about any aspect of administrative activity and is called the “Question Hour”.
Question Hour holds a special place in Indian politics. Several corruption scandals have been unearthed from questions asked during the Question Hour. In fact, India’s very first major financial scam was brought to light during a question hour. Questions are pointed and the ministry answering the question can neither avoid the question nor lie as either of those result in a contempt of the parliament.
Until now, there was no way for Indian citizens to ask questions during question hour. Working with Delhi Government, The students prepared an online question form for citizens to anonymously or publicly ask direct questions to any ministry. Take a look.
Both these projects will be launched by the Delhi Government early next year. Being born and brought up in Delhi, It’s especially super exciting for me to see Stanford students use their technical skills to create a positive change in my home town.
The CS+Social Good CS 90SI class is one of my favorite classes I’ve taken at Stanford. It was an eye-opening experience that allowed me to apply my knowledge in computer science in ways I’ve never imagined I could before.
My project with the New Delhi government really opened my eyes to the power of the combination of government and technology. Many government bodies have vast databases of valuable information that are not being released or analyzed and presented in a way that is useful for making improvements in societies around the world. This is the first step in a technology revolution and a cultural shift in society. It’s time that we put our skills and souls towards changing the lives of people in the rest of the world that have been neglected for far too long. It all starts with us.
— Michelle Guo, Team Delhi, Stanford ’18
Team Labor Voices — Labor Rights
LaborVoices is a social enterprise startup that is building a Glassdoor for workers in developing countries to rate their safety and working conditions anonymously using their basic mobile phones. Currently, LaborVoices is engaging workers across 200 apparel factories in Bangladesh and Turkey to rate their own factories, and sharing that data with factory management, brands, and workers, so that management can quickly identify and resolve problems, brands can identify the best factories to source from, and workers can identify the best factories to work for.
The LaborVoices project revolves around the terrible garment factory labour conditions in developing countries. In Bangladesh — the country where most of LaborVoices’ current data comes from — there are about 4,000 of these factories employing over 3.5 million people, 85% of which are women.
Workers face all kinds of challenges on a daily basis: they have to deal with verbal and physical abuse, are denied breaks during the workday, are forced to work overtime, and have to operate in unsafe working conditions. Garments produced in factories like these account for 80% of Bangladesh’s export revenue but these people do not make enough in a month, to buy a single item that they make.
The team built a platform for laborers, journalists and general audience to view factory conditions across Bangladesh. The platform allows the user to look at factory scores on the basis of worker recommendation, wages, child labor score etc.
The team is also designing new features including an “In The News” feature.
Check out their final presentation below:
CS 90SI - Fall 2015 Eric Ehizokhale, Michelle Lam, Rachel Lim, Nikhita Obeegadoo, Sophie Ye
While I enjoyed learning more about web development and design and using unfamiliar development frameworks and APIs, my main takeaway from the class was more personal than technical.
To say the least, everything I learned about the problem was gut wrenching. I’ve participated in the consumerist culture most of my life, and it is horrifying to think that our — my — consumerism could be the source of others’ pain. I am angry that laborers can be killed protesting for a minimum wage of $150 a month, when we, by accident of birth, seldom have to worry about whether we have enough to live.
— Rachel Lim, Team LaborVoices, Stanford’17
Team Oppia — Online Education
People learn better when they participate actively in the learning process (e.g. by doing things and getting feedback) than by passive exposure to videos and text, so why isn’t there more of this sort of teaching on the Web? One reason is because there are few, if any, tools that make it easy for non-technical users to create, share, and improve such material. Oppia started as a 20% project by some Google engineers and aims to fix this by making it easy for anyone to create interactive online activities simulating one-on-one tutoring conversations and share them in an open commons.
One of the big motivations for teaching is seeing students get ‘aha’ moments, because the impact is tangible. Students on the class worked on making this impact tangible even when the creator isn’t able to see the student by developing a profile page that allows contributors to get a sense of the impact they are having on others.
This is what the new profile page the team designed looks like:
The new profile page is live at oppia.org. This is what one of the students in the team had to say about the class:
Technology is becoming cheaper, more accessible, and more customizable. The gap must be bridged from both sides, however, and so it’s up to us, on the privileged, tech-developing side, to communicate opportunities and provide entry points for our intended audiences and consumers. Great tools need to be used, and leading by example and using the tools we produce is a simple step in the right direction. Technology, when harnessed and directed with purpose, can make a world of difference.
Thanks for allowing me to go on this adventure with you!
— Travis Shafer, Team Oppia
Team SIRUM — Medicine Redistribution
Medication is the most cost effective way to treat most illnesses. Yet one-in-four working-age adults in the United States skip taking medication due to cost. According to the American College of Preventive Medicine, not taking prescription medicines costs our health system over $100 billion dollars and results in 125,000 deaths each year. At the same time, $5 billion of unopened, unexpired medication goes to waste each year in the U.S., destined for incinerators, landfills, or our waterways. As of 2014, Good Samaritan laws were enacted in 40 states to allow and protect the donation of this medication for the very first time. SIRUM takes advantage of these new laws by sending boxes with prepaid shipping to nursing homes & pharmacies. These facilities put their unexpired, surplus medications into the box. SIRUM then makes sure that the right medicine goes directly to the right people.
Saving medicine means saving lives. SIRUM has a website that matches nursing homes and pharmacies with surplus medications with safety-net clinics in need of medications. Our patent-pending design allows clinics to create a wish list or “formulary” of medications that they want. When the nursing home or pharmacy has the requested medications, they see the matching clinics and can donate those medicines and track the donation from pickup to delivery. As part of the work, SIRUM often needs to email or mail PDFs of shipping labels, shipping manifests, and thank you letters to our nursing homes and pharmacies.
Students in the class designed RESTful endpoints for creating and saving a PDF using HTML, emailing our users, leveraging the nodemailer library and for mailing SIRUM’s users, leveraging Lob.com’s API.
Check out their final presentation below:
This is how one of the students described his experience working with SIRUM:
I have studied how programmers can best support the humanitarian/non-profit sector for the last few years, but I am still amazed at just how much impact a single coder can have. In this class, I built an automated postal mail distribution system for the local non-profit healthcare organization SIRUM. Before my project was complete, SIRUM manually mailed out roughly 200 letters per month to its customers, costing dozens and dozens of labor hours every month. The software solution I created is fast, cheap, and can send mail en masse. My solution should take one single employee less than an hour to send out all the letters.
It feels fantastic to have such a return on impact for my time. It took me just a few days to make the program, and it can now help SIRUM potentially for years.
This project was a perfect example of the supreme impact coders can have if they look beyond the profit motive. Software developers have a unique way of thinking, and a unique and powerful set of tools to offer the world, but unfortunately these are squandered on making the cloud 1% more efficient or creating social networks for poodles. Instead, I know that my code will help people get medication they would be otherwise unable to afford. I may literally have saved a life.
And it was easy, fun, and educational for me. This class was fantastic. I not only hope the class continues, but I hope it’s able to have ripple effects on the CS culture on campus. Every aspiring coder at Stanford should take CS+Social Good.
— Zak Whittington, Stanford’16, Team SIRUM
The class is the very first step in our much larger goal at CS+Social Good. We want to change the conversation about computer science and gear it towards social impact. We want to empower and inspire every single student at Stanford and around the world to use their technical skills to help people. And we are just getting started!
We would love to hear from you! Send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you.